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BLUECHIP: Workforce training in higher ed increasingly aligns with local industry needs

As published in The Register Guard on January 7, 2020.

Pathways to employment and advancement

The state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission embeds in its mission the promise of “ensuring an accessible, affordable, equitable, and coordinated network of college and career training programs” for all Oregonians. So the vision for workforce training in Oregon starts at the top.

Four-year universities and colleges, community colleges, trade schools, workforce partners, training organizations — all have made workforce development an essential component of the post-secondary learning experience. That’s a really good thing, because according to the State of Oregon Employment Department’s employment projections through 2027 in Lane County, the typical level of education expected for entry-level positions across a variety of industries includes some form of post-secondary training, and in many cases a four-year or two-year degree.

In our own backyard, at Northwest Christian University and at Lane Community College, the trend to prepare students to be workforce ready is not only part of the goal, but a driving force behind program creation and coursework planning.

Fitting into the community fabric

At Northwest Christian University, it feels as if the University of Oregon is transforming around its edges, seemingly about to swallow NCU in one gulp. NCU, however, is more than holding its own, steady at the forefront of building programs to prepare its graduates for the local workforce. In fact, this compact, four-year, liberal arts university has been graduating competent, work-ready individuals since 1895.

“The college was founded in order to provide job training for ministers and teachers,” says Joe Womack, NCU’s president since 2010. “They wouldn’t have called it workforce development back then, but that’s essentially what it was.”

Back in 1925, for example, NCU built what’s now the University Hospital in downtown Eugene and dedicated a program to train nurses. But then, barely out of the gate, NCU had to sell the hospital during the Great Depression to the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Peace (now the well-established PeaceHealth hospital system). Although this retraction was necessary, for decades after the Depression, NCU’s enrollment remained stable but small as the school continued to prepare ministers and teachers. And when the UO incorporated a teacher education program in its curriculum, NCU adjusted again, giving up teacher education rather than compete with the UO for students.

Not until the 1980s did NCU leaders begin to think about the necessity of extending beyond the university’s core curricular focus in order to increase enrollment and financial security. By the 1990s, a shift in approach was underway.

“We had to find a way for liberal arts to exist within the framework of higher education in a sustainable way,” Womack says.

The university’s formal mission wouldn’t change — to manifest excellence in Christian higher education, to exercise faithful stewardship, to foster life transformation, and to develop purposeful graduates. The shift, Womack says, occurred when school leaders engaged in “an ongoing dialogue about what the community needs. And what can we do to design our programs to fulfill those needs?”

NCU’s adaptations through the years have led to program growth and increased enrollment to more than 800 students. The list is substantial:

  • As more adults wanted to earn a four-year degree, NCU developed its adult learning program, one of the first in a liberal arts college setting.
  • When the UO eliminated its teacher certification program, NCU rebooted its program to fill the gap.
  • For business leaders seeking to earn an MBA but with no time to attend traditional graduate courses, NCU developed its successful online MBA program.
  • When local hospitals couldn’t staff enough nurses, NCU created a four-year nursing program to help meet the demand.
  • Most recently, the university installed a new computer science/software engineering program and a competitive esports team in response to Eugene’s burgeoning tech industry.

More program ideas are in the hopper, too. A future goal for David Walsh, NCU’s new dean of business, is to develop a master’s in nursing that includes a focus on management, because it’s something the nursing community needs. The challenge, Walsh says, is that nurses want to move up organizationally; they have a master’s in nursing, but they have never managed people, “so they need some training in business, too.”

Walsh brings a wealth of business knowledge to NCU as the former president and CEO of Amalgamated Life Insurance Company and most recently as executive in residence at Columbia University Business School in New York City.

“The focus on what the community needs is not new,” Walsh says. “What’s new is the freshening of it and the way we’re doing it.”

‘Chunking up the training’

Across town, on the campus of Lane Community College, the practice of school leaders heeding the calls of the local economy is nothing new either. Want to earn an associate’s degree in cybersecurity? LCC’s newest two-year degree program is a direct result of Eugene’s expanding tech job market. How about mechatronics, the study of both the physical and programming components of automation within processing plants?

“That’s one we’re working on,” says Grant Matthews, LCC’s associate vice president, CTE and Workforce Development. The area’s “wood products industry and the food and beverage industry use mechatronics.”

Since it was founded in 1964, absorbing the earlier Eugene Technical-Vocational School, LCC has prepared its students and added programs for a variety of vocations, including industrial trades, the arts, business, nursing, culinary and hospitality, as well as, more recently, computer science and information technology.

But long gone are the days in the 1980s and 1990s, when the standard path was to use an LCC two-year degree as a stepping stone to a four-year college. That model may serve some job sectors well, but not all. Many sectors simply need trained workers, and with the pending retirement of so many baby boomers, a sea swell of trained replacement workers is needed.

“We’re seeing now, with technology advances and more technical needs for entry workforce, this need to develop the replacement workers,” says Paul Jarrell, provost and executive vice president at LCC. “You can’t just move into those jobs from high school without some training. So now there’s been this push back to what they call submittal skills, or work that requires some kind of post-secondary training, but not necessarily a degree.”

LCC offers many entry points to skills training, which makes it easier for its more than 10,000 regular-credit students to earn the skills they need. Options generally include a Career Pathways Certificate of Completion to acknowledge degrees of proficiency in specific technical skills, a One Year Certificate, or an Associate’s Degree.

“Chunking up the training allows students to move in and out of education and the workforce, allowing for some of that increased upward mobility,” Jarrell says.

In addition to well-trained workers, local employers also want well-rounded employees, Matthews says.

“There are a lot of positive skills in liberal arts that employers are recognizing,” Matthews says. “So even though there is a hope and desire that we have a lot of focus on career and technical skills areas, employers are also saying ‘don’t forget about these other skills,’ those professional skills. That is a piece that is really influencing some of our decisions around programming.”

Communication is key

People don’t work in silos anymore, NCU’s Walsh says. “The more cross-pollination we can get, to get our students ready for the community’s needs, the better. And the way to find out about what the community needs is to do what we’re doing right now, which is a lot of talking to people.”

Community partnerships, thus, are an important part of post-secondary workforce training.

At NCU, all students, in every major, do an internship before graduation. In fact, 100% of the students graduate with at least 135 hours of field experience, and to help students meet this requirement, the college partners with 175 schools and companies, locally and statewide.

Internships consistently provide an environment in which students being mentored can make small mistakes in a protected setting and still face what it’s truly like to work in the real world, Walsh says.

Field experience plays a role for LCC students, too, with some programs — specifically in the trades — offering apprenticeships as part of the course of study.

“We’re definitely looking at how we can develop or improve our apprenticeship programs to address some of those industries that maybe are not as defined with a credential, like nursing or medical assisting, but definitely have a skill set that is needed,” Matthews says.

LCC also works with its industry partners to define exactly what an “entry-level” skill set includes.

“It’s kind of a two-way push of listening and hearing about what does entry level look like and how we design our certificates around entry-, middle- and high-skilled within those industries, but also helping our partners to see that there is a benefit for students to having a credential,” Matthews says.

NCU’s leaders are talking to local employers about the basics: What makes a competent four-year graduate? What skills do employers really want? How best can students become prepared?

The response to workforce development should be nimble, NCU president Womack says, and be deeply involved in the discussion of what defines competency, especially within the industries NCU graduates will enter.

Walsh has talked to local accounting firms, for example: “What can’t you find? Can you find cost accountants? Auditors? If you can’t, why not, and is that where we go?” he says of the give-and-take dialogue driving the decisions about the best coursework to prepare students.

“I think as curriculums change, internships need to change as well, because what business needs, and particularly business in a smaller community, is people who can think well, who have a broad level of decision-making skills,” Walsh allows.

LCC aims to improve its automotive tech program, because there’s a “disconnect,” Jarrell says, between the program and the community’s needs. Despite plenty of high-school graduates with an interest in the automotive industry, LCC’s automotive tech program is not full. Yet a large local employer, Kendall Auto Group, cannot staff all its needs with the local workforce, and therefore must recruit out of state.

The remedy, Jarrell adds, is to maintain strong business partnerships and to better communicate to a broader pool of students, including women and students of color, what awaits on the other end of the program — a job that pays $20 to $25 an hour as a starting wage.

School to school

NCU and LCC have recently developed what Womack refers to as a “student pathways” relationship, which to him is a win-win. While NCU in the past may have preferred to have students enrolled at NCU for all four years, Womack knows that “each kid is on their own path. If I only get them for two years, why would I care?” he says. Two years are better than none. This has set the stage for NCU to work on similar agreements with Umpqua Community CollegeLinn-Benton Community College and Southwestern Oregon Community College.

Along those lines, LCC seeks to strengthen its relationship with other four-year schools.

“We’re trying to break the sense of competition that exists among everybody. We are not competing for the same students,” Jarrell says.

Currently, students transfer from LCC mostly to the UO, Oregon State University, and Portland State University, Jarrell says. But LCC is also strengthening ties with NCU, with Pacific University, and with Oregon Health & Science University, where nursing students can dual enroll.

Beyond Lane County, LCC has forged relationships with international schools in several countries, creating opportunities for Oregon residents to earn bachelor-level training, often in three years rather than four, while also gaining global experience many employers prize.

Technology, however, remains the great equalizer among schools.

The challenge is the same for all schools as technology advances at a rapid pace, LCC’s Matthews says: “As we contribute to the economy through workforce development and skill development, there has to be that continued development or investment back into the institution to make sure we can stay abreast of those changes and make sure we’re helping those students be competitive.”

Source: BLUECHIP: Workforce training in higher ed increasingly aligns with local industry needs

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